Painting portraits, she draws the life stories of South Jersey seniors | Kevin Riordan

Linda Dennin paints Maryann Lutringer at the senior program of St. Peter Roman Catholic Church in Merchantville. Dennin, a student at Philadelphia’s Studio Incamminati, is painting more than 50 portraits as part of a thesis project.

Maryann Lutringer walked to the easel and took a good look at herself.

“You’re beautiful,” said the painter Linda Dennin, brush in hand.

“Well, I don’t know about that,” Lutringer, 74, said wryly. “But this is very nice.”

Having finished portraits of 45 South Jersey seniors so far, Dennin is accustomed to candid reactions to her work — and candid accounts of the lives her subjects have led.

“As an artist, I want to see character, and you can see the content of people’s character when they’re sharing their stories,” said the former journalist, who’s doing the oil portraits as a senior thesis project for Philadelphia’s Studio Incamminati art school.

“You can’t be thin-skinned,” said Dennin, a Merchantville resident. “These seniors are no-nonsense. One lady — I thought hers was one of my best portraits — told me: ‘Oh, that’s terrible. It’s horrible.’

“Others say: ‘I’m ugly. You don’t want to paint my picture.’ And one lady said she wants to put the portrait on her casket. On top of it.”

Since September, Dennin has been painting portraits of seniors who attend a daytime activities program in the former convent at St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church in Merchantville.

Plans call for a gallery show of the completed pictures, perhaps to help raise money for the St. Peter Senior Ministry Program, which serves about 300 people ages 63 to 98.

“I’m pleased that Linda is using her artistic skills to fulfill part of the mission of the school, to give back to the community,” said Jay Pennie, president of Studio Incamminati.

Dennin’s subjects have volunteered to sit for several hours under bright lights on a platform in a makeshift studio, where the artist uses a technique called alla prima  (first attempt) to capture “a likeness, and an inner likeness” in a single session.

Like most people, including me, her subjects have never had their portrait painted. The whole notion seems posh, something associated with celebrities, statesmen, or royalty rather than, say, retired teachers, Korean War veterans, or merchants from South Jersey.

“Most people are never going to have this opportunity,” said Bobbie Bradley, a registered nurse who is director of the Senior Ministry. “These seniors have such a wealth of experience to share. They deserve to have this done.”

The models often are flattered, but nervous. Most are eager to talk, and a lively conversation can render them a “moving target,” said Dennin.

“They want somebody to listen,” said Carla Hughes, who’s in charge of the kitchen at the Senior Ministry.

“We all have a story to tell. And Linda’s heard them all.”

Camera icon TIM TAI
Linda Dennin paints Maryann Lutringer at St. Peter Roman Catholic Church’s senior ministry program in Merchantville. Dennin is painting 55 portraits, which will be displayed in the dining room.

Many of Dennin’s subjects were originally from Camden, or from South Jersey farm towns that have long since developed into suburbs.

“A lot of the stories are about growing up,” said Dennin, a mother of two and grandmother of three.

The faces she renders on 16-by-20-inch canvas belong to retired professionals, blue-collar folks, grandparents, and the children of immigrants. Some are immigrants themselves. Many are widows or widowers. And a few have found new partners (shhh).

“They talk about their loneliness,” Dennin said. “They say things like, ‘I don’t want to get married again, because then who would I live with in heaven?’ ”

Lutringer, a retired clerical worker who lives in Cherry Hill, said she and the artist “talked only about the good things” in her life.

Otherwise, “Linda could probably blackmail us all,” said Lutringer, adding: “I’m smiling, not crying. Linda made [the session] easy.”

Dennin does have a knack for putting people at ease. She’s still got an appealing bit of bluegrass in her voice from a childhood in Kentucky, where she wrote features for newspapers. Later she worked at South Jersey weeklies, professional experience that can come in handy when trying to capture a person on canvas.

“I have a tendency to interview people,” Dennin said.

Professions other than journalism also can be an apt way to describe the process involved in making a painting.

“Sitting for a portrait is like going to a bar and telling the bartender your stories. Or going to confession,” said Dennin. “I want to convey their essence, whatever that soul is within them. It’s a labor of love for me.”

I watched for a while last Tuesday as Dennin worked with Soora Dehoon, 82, of Maple Shade.

An ardent environmentalist, Dehoon grew up in Russia, lived in Iran and France, and has worked as a draftsman, secretary, seamstress, beautician, and aide for youngsters with special needs.

She also speaks five languages, has two grown daughters, and had never sat for a portrait. There’s a memoir-in-progress, too.

“I’ve had a very unusual life, a very difficult life,” Dehoon said.

Dennin put a highlight here, a bit of shadow there, adding final touches to the portrait.

The face on the canvas really seemed to express, or personify, what the woman sitting under the bright light was saying — or perhaps, the way she said it.

Camera icon TIM TAI
Portraits painted by Linda Dennin at St. Peter Roman Catholic Church’s senior ministry in Merchantville, N.J. Dennin is finishing her studies at the Studio Incamminati art school in Philadelphia.

“With fine art portraiture … the idea is to capture something you’re not going to get in a photograph,” Pennie said. “We’re always hoping that inner beauty comes out in the painting.”

I’d suggest the painting of Dehoon could be called Resiliency Is Beautiful.

It would be a good name for all of Dennin’s portraits of the seniors at St. Peter’s.